Kurds who oppose President Tayyip Erdogan worry that a win for him in Turkey’s presidential election will deepen the state’s years-long onslaught on them, and they are worried by a spike in nationalist rhetoric ahead of Sunday’s vote.
Kurds, who make up around one-fifth of Turkey’s population, have been considered as potentially critical to the opposition’s aspirations of ending Erdogan’s 20-year reign, during which he courted but then harshly repressed Kurdish organizations.
But the momentum is with Erdogan going into Sunday’s vote after the first round gave him a lead over the opposition’s Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who trailed despite the backing of six parties and the endorsement of the pro-Kurdish HDP party.
For some Kurdish voters, the stakes couldn’t be higher as Erdogan dials up his nationalist tone in a bid to win more votes ahead of the runoff.
“Voting is a matter of life and death now. Erdogan hardened his stance on Kurds during the election campaign,” said Ardelan Mese, 26, a cafe owner in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in the southeast who is urging his friends to vote.
“I can’t imagine what he will be capable of after declaring victory.”
The HDP won 61% support in Diyarbakir in the May 14 parliamentary election, while Erdogan’s AKP got 23%. Nationwide, HDP support was 8.9%.
The issue of HDP support for Kilicdaroglu has this week been complicated by his deal with an anti-immigrant party that HDP said was “against universal democratic principles”. The HDP was expected to issue a statement on the issue on Thursday.
In his early years in power, Erdogan expanded political and cultural rights for Kurds, a stateless group scattered between Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.
He removed restrictions on using the Kurdish language and oversaw a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which took up arms against the state in 1984 and is viewed as a terrorist group by Turkey and its Western allies.
But after a ceasefire collapsed in 2015, he changed course, with the authorities waging a crackdown that led to the arrest of thousands of HDP members, typically on charges of militancy, with many of its lawmakers and mayors unseated and jailed.
Seizing on the HDP’s support for Kilicdaroglu, Erdogan has repeatedly accused the opposition of siding with terrorism. The HDP denies accusations of militant ties.
Erdogan also repeatedly drew attention to a doctored video to accuse Kilicdaroglu of ties to the PKK, which has been waging an insurgency in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.
Kilicdaroglu called the accusation slanderous.
But Erdogan’s stance has won the endorsement of Sinan Ogan, a hardline nationalist who came third in the first round. Ogan has said the endorsement was based on a principle of “non-stop struggle (against) terrorism”, referring to pro-Kurdish groups.